Even losers must vote for change

British clubs seem to have no option but to follow the Australians into the new world. Dave Hadfield reports
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The Independent Online
Though lacking guarantees, the rugby league hierarchy has to hope Murdoch's millions will generate benefits other sports have enjoyed

British rugby league is being dragged along by events on the other side of the world at a pace that leaves little time for reflection on the most sweeping changes to affect the game in 100 years.

All the indications are that, unlike his victory over the Australian Rugby League for control of the sport at its top level there, Rupert Murdoch's takeover in the northern hemisphere will be a bloodless one. Unlike the ARL, which can fairly argue that it runs a thriving operation that does not need Murdoch, the psychology of the game in Britain is that of a starving dog. Throw it a bone and it is unlikely to ponder too deeply over whether there is a catch.

So - how will the new world operate?

News Ltd's vision of a Euro-League appears city-based rather than club- based, so that, of the teams currently in the Premiership, only Leeds and Wigan are likely to become founding members of the lite division of rugby league in the northern hemisphere. The big two apart, the new league is likely to grant teams to London, Cardiff, Paris, Toulouse and Birmingham. The annexation of a rugby union club in Italy to set up a team there has also been mooted, and would provide an additional international element. It is thought that the new clubs will be allocated a fund of money, and they would then go into the open market to buy in talent.

The new structure would leave clubs like Widnes, St Helens and Warrington, bastions of the sport in this country for a century, stranded in an English League Division One. To vote in favour, therefore, their chairmen must believe they will benefit dramatically from Murdoch's largesse. Whether their supporters will believe that is sufficient compensation for no longer playing at the highest possible level is another matter.

Sides are likely to play each other at home and away with matches taking place on Friday and Sunday nights.

Clubs dazzled by the sums involved will put their hands up for all this and for the associated switch to summer rugby as well. The logistics of actually making it happen are much more of a problem. Already, 1997 looks to be a more likely start date than 1996. Too many of Murdoch's Australian signings are contracted to ARL clubs for 1996 and there is little point in rushing to start the revolution here before the one in the southern hemisphere.

The British game could then play out the 1995-96 season normally, including the Centenary World Cup and the end-of-season tour to Australia, although who they will play there is anyone's guess. The 1996/97 season would follow in trunctated form, thereby allowing the Euro-League to start in the spring of 1997.

From then on, all professional rugby league would be played in the summer, with the European top four meeting the Australasian top four in play-offs for a World Championship in October. This would be followed, in some if not all years, by international matches.

There will be, I am told by clubs who want it to be that way, promotion and relegation into the Euro-League. On that point, we shall see. As another sweetener to the non-Super fraternity, the Challenge Cup could survive as a competition open to all, with a final in mid-season.

There are huge questions still to be answered, not least what will happen if Murdoch decides after five years that his ratings will benefit more by switching his money elsewhere.

That is a worrying prospect, but not as worrying as another possibility that was seriously considered. Murdoch looked closely at the idea of a worldwide rugby union operation, which with all pretence of amateurism abandoned, would buy in the leading players from rugby league. League's precise future might be uncertain now, but at least it will be better than being subjected to that ultimate indignity.

For all that, many are bound to question the willingness of the British rugby league establishment to embrace Murdoch's plans. The trouble, from the point of view of choosing the right road for the game here, is that the battle in Australia appears to be over bar the shouting. Murdoch already has the clubs and the players to start an lite competition in the southern hemisphere.

Despite the best efforts of the ARL, the cream of Australia's players have joined up, and News Ltd claim already to have recognition of those players as the legitimate Australian team from the leagues in Britain and New Zealand.

Suddenly, Ken Arthurson, the chairman of the ARL and by far the most powerful man in the world game, hardly seems to have a friend. He has withdrawn his threat to expel clubs, which would now merely be playing into their hands, and although he says that the Winfield Cup will continue with its core of loyalists, it will be small fry alongside Murdoch's star- studded Star League.

The reality of Murdoch's victory in Australia means that the British game can only move in one direction. If the Super League concept was to take off in Australia, but not in Britain, the game here would be powerless against the predations of a rival which would want all its best players and have no compunction about taking them. No wonder that the Wigan chairman, Jack Robinson, was immediately and enthusiastically supportive of a Euro- League. It is the only way of preserving his club.

So the situation here will be entirely different. For their various reasons, clubs will vote to go along with Murdoch voluntarily. They will believe that they have guarantees from him that will safeguard the future of the game outside the lite level. Only time will tell.

THE NEW AGE: HOW IT WOULD WORK

EURO-LEAGUE

Birmingham, Cardiff, Gateshead, Leeds, London Broncos, Italian team, Manchester, Paris, Toulouse, Wigan.

FEEDER LEAGUES

ENGLISH LEAGUE

FIRST DIVISION

Bradford Northern, Castleford, Halifax, Huddersfield, Hull, Keighley, St Helens, Sheffield, Workington, Wakefield, Warrington, Widnes. (This division fed by promotion/relegation from English League Second Division).

FRENCH LEAGUE

Carcassonne, XIII Catalan, Lyon, Narbonne, St Estve, St Gaudens, etc.

Top four from Euro League play off against top four from southern hemisphere Star League.

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